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  • Merrilee MacLean

Istanbul - No Dancing Bears

Istanbul and Bosporus, with Europe on left and Asia on right
Cruising the Bosporus in Istanbul - Europe is on the left side; Asia is on the right

My first impression of Istanbul was not based on first hand experience – it was as a student in 1973 when fellow students that had visited Istanbul could only talk about the dancing bears on the streets. I still don’t know if that was true, but it colored my view of Istanbul as an exotic, foreign place that may not be the best place for me to go.

There were no dancing bears on my recent visit to Istanbul. Instead, I found a modern city of 16 million people that seem to be blending and accepting a variety of cultures while at the same time accommodating millions of tourists each year. There is a diversity in languages, religions and dress that is almost overwhelming. This is most visible with the women. Turkish women are under no dress restrictions – they are free to wear whatever they like. That means, however, that religious Turkish women will likely be seen in various stages of religious covering, from head scarves to full burkas where only the eyes are visible (and they may be covered by sun glasses). Young secular Turkish women will often be seen in torn jeans and crop tops. Older Turkish women seem to favor shapeless dresses. Young children, and there are lots of them, run free. There is little distinction visible in the dress of men. That said, it is clearly a man’s world in Turkey. Men are everywhere on the streets, as vendors, hucksters trying to draw you into a restaurant of offering their services as a guide, and pulling or pushing immensely loaded hand carts. And most of them are smoking – constantly. In a world where smoking is barred in many public places, that is not the case in Istanbul, at least in the touristy areas.

The history of Istanbul, as with most cities in this part of the world, is complicated. First founded by Thracian tribes 3,000 years ago, it was colonized by the Greeks in the 7th century B.C. It then fell to the Romans in 196 A.D. where the city became known as Byzantium. In 330 King Constantine of Rome decided to make it the capital of the Roman Empire and named the city after him, Constantinople. With its strategic location and the official conversion of the Romans to Christianity, it became a thriving commercial and religious center. While the western half of the Roman Empire lost its influence in the 5th century, the eastern half flourished. Called the Byzantine Empire to distinguish it from the failed Roman Empire, Constantinople became the center of both the Byzantine Empire and Greek Orthodox Christianity. During much of the Byzantine period it was the largest city in Europe. Crusaders attacked and ransacked the city in the 1200’s and after a 53 day siege in 1453, the Ottoman Empire conquered the city and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It remained that way until after the First World War. In 1923, Mestapha Kemal aka Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey, declared the country secular, moved the capitol to Ankara, and changed the name of the city to Istanbul.

Tourism in Istanbul is big business, and with good reason. It has a lot to show and be proud of. A land of 3,000 to 4,000 mosques (different guides gave different numbers), it is a visually striking city. Straddling Asia and Europe with bridges across the Bosporus, the city is growing on both sides, though the Asian side appears to be where the growth will continue, since housing is more available and affordable for growing families. Any (and apparently every) visitor to Istanbul makes their way to the “top four” – the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar, all located in the Sultanahmet district on the European side of the city.

mosaic in Hagia Sophia Museum
Mosaic in Hagia Sophia Museum, part of original Orthodox Christian Church, but covered by plaster when Ottomans repurposed to mosque

The Hagia Sophia Museum was built in 537 and served as the patriarchal cathedral for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church for over 900 years. It is recognized as the most important Byzantine structure still in existence. In 1453, the Ottomans took over and the church was repurposed as a mosque, adding minarets. As the Muslim faith does not allow depictions of people inside its holy place, the mosaics of religious figures were covered with plaster. In 1934, after the Ottoman Empire failed and Mustafa Kemal, aka Atatuk, declared independence, the building was converted to a museum so both faiths could continue to access the building. Over time, some of the plaster covering the religious artwork has been removed, leaving brilliantly detailed mosaics.

Blue Mosque courtyard
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Across a plaza from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque (which is only called the Blue Mosque by foreigners). It was built in 1616, has six minarets (a bit of a scandal at the time) and a large dome inside. Tourists are welcome to enter, except at prayer time, so long as they are dressed appropriately, which means head coverings for women and longer covers for those wearing shorts or with bare shoulders. The coverings are available to borrow, at no charge. One must also remove one’s shoes, and plastic bags are provided so that you can carry the shoes with you. In smaller mosques, the shoes are simply left outside the front door. Significant reconstruction was underway during my visit, so it was hard to visualize either the beauty or “blueness” of the mosque, but the experience was worth the effort, particularly watching the men go into the main area to pray, while the women were cordoned off in the back.

Nearby the Blue Mosque, and in the same general area, are the Hippodrome and the Egyptian Obelisk. The Hippodrome has to be imagined, since there are no physical remains of the area where Constantine and other Roman leaders held chariot races and gladiator contests. The Egyptian Obelisk aka Obelisk of Theodosius does still stand and is in fact the oldest structure in Istanbul, having been built by the Egyptians in 1450 B.C. Constantine ordered that it be “borrowed” from Egypt and erected in his new town. It didn’t actually get there until Theodosius was king, so it is now named after him. Sixty-six feet tall, it is actually shorter than the original since part of it broke in transit, but has stood proudly in its space since 390 A.D. The hieroglyphics are still quite legible, and it stands above a platform created for it, which depicts historic events, including Constantine watching the chariot races.

tomb of Sultan Ahmed
Tomb of Sultan Ahmed, with various family members

Another less advertised but for me more satisfying site was Tomb of Sultan Ahmed. On the same plaza, it houses the tombs of the family members of Sultan Ahmed, including wives and many children in a simple vaulted room, covered in calligraphy and blue tiles similar to those used in the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar gets lots of tourist attention (reportedly over 91 million annual visitors in 2014), but simply isn’t my cup of tea, so we walked through and moved on to other adventures. If you like tourist stuff, as likely made in China as Turkey, and the idea of bargaining, you may find it enjoyable. It is huge, with over 4,000 shops covering 61 streets, and hosting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors a day, according to Wikipedia. Frankly, much better options are either the Spice Bazaar or the Arasta Bazaar . Finally, Topkapi Palace is a large complex built after the Ottomans seized power in the 15th century, It served as the imperial residence for almost 400 years. It was converted to a museum after Turkey became a republic, and now offers excellent views of the surrounding waters and insight into what life was like for the sultans and their harems during the Ottoman rule.

One touristy thing you definitely should do is a cruise on the Bosporus. There are many options, and they aren’t that expensive. We did a cruise recommended by our hotel. For only 20 Euros, they met us at the hotel, took us to the boat where we joined about 20 other passengers on a smaller boat, with a wide open area in the back, perfect for sunning or photo taking. We sailed up the European side of the Bosporus to the second bridge and then back down the Asian side, with the guide identifying places of interest. We then went up the Golden Horn (an appendix shaped waterway within the European side) and back, all in all a lovely three hour cruise – with a much better result than Gilligan. After the crowds and noise of the city, and particularly the bazaars and shopping areas which can become claustrophobic, it is a wonderful reward.

Fountain in front of Hagia Sophia Museum
Fountain in front of Hagia Sophia Museum - a relaxing way to spend the afternoon

There are many other sights and things to do in Istanbul, and day trips, but we also enjoyed just sitting on the benches by the fountain between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, watching all the tourists go by. As annoying as selfies can be, they do seem to have changed the nature of photo-taking by tourists. It used to be that someone would stand sternly in front of a monument or church, have their photo taken, and then move on to the next sight and do the same thing. Now that people can immediately see how boring those photos actually are, they are now smiling, posing and appear to be enjoying themselves more. This is a good thing. I am seriously considering starting a business at major tourist locations, offering to take photos of people with their own phones, for a donation. Sure, I do it for free now, and they are usually surprised to see how good the photos are. Perhaps a new side profession? The other benefit of sitting at the fountain between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is hearing the call and response between the two muezzins during the five times daily call to prayer. These are live performances, with no pre-recorded content. The muezzin from the Blue Mosque, since it is the senior mosque, starts; the muezzin from the Hagia Sophia replies, and they go back and forth for about ten minutes. Being able to hear the call and response between the two is something not to be missed.

Finally, I must give credit to the Turkish people. In a society that values bargaining, they are assertive but not aggressive. If you make it clear you are not interested, they just move on to the next person – this is not always the case in other countries. Also, people seemed particularly polite and obliging even in crowds; everyone waited their turn – again not what I was expecting. For a city of 16 million people, it was amazingly clean, at least in the tourist areas, with workers constantly picking up any loose papers or trash. I never felt unsafe, though that may have been in part to a very obvious police presence in the main tourist area between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Police carrying automatic rifles and bulletproof vests patrol the area constantly – it was explained that after the terrorist incidents a few years ago it was decided that a visible presence would deter future actions, and so far it has. And then there are the dogs. Lots of cities have cats that get attention and photographs. In Istanbul, dogs are everywhere. They don’t appear to belong to anyone, they just hang out sleeping on sidewalks and in parks. They all have tags in their ears showing that they had been immunized and spayed or neutered. Food and water is set out in strategic places – not sure by whom. They are comfortable with strangers, and strangers are comfortable with them, or so it seems. As a dog lover, it was a nice surprise.

So, do not be deterred from visiting Istanbul because of stories like dancing bears. It truly is a lovely, and lively, city and worth a visit.


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